Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Robert Gebelhoff: Why Civil Asset Forfeiture Simply Won't Die

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Robert Gebelhoff: Why Civil Asset Forfeiture Simply Won't Die

Article excerpt

That Attorney General Jeff Sessions would resurrect a controversial federal program for civil asset forfeiture isn't surprising. He has long been one of the rare advocates for the policy, a vestige of the war on drugs restricted by the Obama administration that allowed local and state law enforcement officials to use federal law to seize (and keep) property suspected of being connected with a crime.

But his announcement last week that the Justice Department was expanding the practice nonetheless perfectly illustrates the stubborn persistence of civil asset forfeiture. Liberals and conservatives alike despise it: Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Charles Koch Institute have lobbied against it, achieving legitimate success at both the federal and state levels. Meanwhile, supporters of civil forfeiture -- almost exclusively from the law enforcement community -- are few and far between.

Yet civil asset forfeiture refuses to die. It remains an embarrassing fixture of our criminal-justice system -- wandering like a zombie with an affinity for pickpocketing.

Why? Probably because police have become addicted to the revenue stream it provides. Conservatives often argue that it's impossible to rescind welfare programs once people become accustomed to them. Perhaps that logic is better suited for law enforcement officers who don't want to give up their slush funds.

Sessions suggested this pretty strongly in his directive last week. In public remarks, the attorney general said that law-abiding people whose property is used without their knowledge for illegal purposes should "not be punished because of crimes that others have committed." But his directive explicitly allows Justice Department officials to seize such property -- provided that they do so "with particular caution." If it's not about the money, what reasonable reason for seizing the property of law-abiding people could there be?

"Really this comes down to funding," said Darpana Sheth, director of the civil forfeiture initiative at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian nonprofit law firm. …

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